Friday, January 3, 2020

3 Things in Ultrarunning that Are Concerning (At Least to Me)

Long time no post. If people actually still read blogs, I might post more!

All is going fairly well in my world. The last few years I have dealt with pretty bad pain in my ankles--likely the result of multiple sprains on the trail, with inadequate therapy to restore mobility and strength. Of particular note was a major sprain I suffered in 2013 during the Leadville Trail Marathon (one of my best-ever races) and that I then trained through (with no real therapy) and ran a 22-hour Leadville 100 on 6ish weeks later. You pay for stuff like that...maybe not then but definitely later. Well, "later" has arrived for me and being in my mid-40s I can't ignore the issue anymore.

Over the holidays, I finally started to get serious about addressing the matter and so I spent a lot of time working on strengthening my ankles and improving mobility. Happily, I am seeing results! My mobility is much better, the pain has improved significantly and I am overall hobbling less. I am also feeling more shock absorption in my ankles--a good thing.

On the not so great side, I am dealing with some minor Achilles issues. I have four dry-needling sessions scheduled in January and in the meantime am working hard with the foam roller and also have reduced my running volume and frequency. I took 8 days off from running over the holidays and used that time to cycle a ton on our Peloton while also working on my ankles. Let me tell you--you can get a killer workout on the Peloton, especially when it involves power zones! Not only do I think I didn't lose any fitness in those 8 days; I actually think I gained fitness.

I am now back to running but with my Achilles still not quite there I am running every other day, with Peloton riding on the "off days." I also started weight lifting and core training back in October and have seen some really nice gains from that work. My "overall fitness" right now is great and I think I'll be ready to start ramping up for the Never Summer 100K pretty soon.


Over the past week+, I have listened to a lot of year/decade-in-review ultrarunning podcasts and read quite a few articles about the overall state of ultra. Given I've been running ultras for about 15 years, I think I bring a decent perspective to things and so I'd like to share three concerns on my mind. Not sure I have good solutions to any of them (I probably don't!).

First, the unstainable growth of ultra and the impact it's having on the community and the environment is a massive concern. As one example of what's happening with this growth, the Western States 100 has seen a nearly four-fold increase in lottery entrants since 2010. While there is no doubt ultra has grown over the years because it's an awesome pursuit (growth in the number of people wanting to run trails is usually a good thing), the concern is around a big part of that growth not being among people who will be good stewards of the trail but rather me-first bucket-listers and buckle chasers who are used to others cleaning up after them.

Like many veteran ultra runners, I have seen in recent years a concerning uptick in trail litter, poor trail usage, poor trail ethics, crews that resemble celebrity entourages, and overall bad behavior, raising questions about the state of the community now versus what it has long-valued. If the community is growing with folks who aren't good trail stewards and who care about nature and the environment in their words but not in their actions, then it's going to be harder and harder for races to navigate permitting, minimize impact, work with property owners, create strong community partnerships, etc. because the bad behavior will bring problems that can't be undone--meaning more and more races will start to disappear.

I think for a long time I took for granted that it's well-understood we run on the actual trail, pick up what we drop (and even others' litter), and basically show respect for each other and nature. It seems those values should not be assumed to be in others anymore. Every day on my runs I pick up litter. In every ultra I run, I see more and more wrappers on the trail. Yes, the vast majority of trail runners are good stewards of the trail, but a growing number appear not to be.

Not everyone has time to volunteer or do organized trail work and that's OK. But we can all abide by solid trail ethics and do our best to leave no trace. We need to make sure that new entrants to ultra actually understand and practice the values of the community--and those values start with leaving no trace where and when possible.

Second, how clean is ultrarunning? Beneath the glossy veneer of ultra these days are a lot of simmering issues and PED use is one of them. A lot of people who really watch ultra closely share this same concern--there's just a reluctance to bring it up in the "public" domain in absence of a smoking gun.

A few years ago, PEDs in ultra was a big subject. No longer, I guess because it's not a fashionable subject anymore or maybe more and more of us just expect it in sport and so it's not outrageous anymore that there are some athletes who will cheat by taking banned substances that boost performance. As an aging runner who doesn't get around as fast as I used to and seems to always have a tweak somewhere on my body, there is the allure of a magic pill that will make me feel younger (ah, the fountain of youth) but then I'd have to live with myself and actually look at myself in the mirror every day. The mirror doesn't seem to work as a moral compass for everyone these days.

Most races operate on a shoe-string budget and could never afford drug testing so we are likely at the place where we just have to be honest and do it the right way and hold each other accountable. And God no to a governing body (yuck). There have been too many oddities not to question the cleanness of ultra. It is massively naïve to assume people will cheat only when money is on the line; ego plays a role, too.

Third (and finally), the toll ultra takes on the mind and body is gravely concerning because people's health in the long run can be profoundly affected. Ultra is an endeavor that can be quite a healthy pursuit but the line between healthy/sustainable and unhealthy/destructive is narrow and sometimes a bit indistinguishable when you're in the moment. I have been on both sides of that line (above, I mentioned a failure on my part to care for my ankles as I felt the greater need to get in the miles for training--and now here I am with ankle issues I'm trying to fix). Keeping it sustainable, I think, goes back to one's purpose. If the purpose revolves around impressing others, then that is likely going to lead to unhealthy outcomes.

My hunch is that the high number of casualties in ultra these days could be traced to those who just want to cross off a bucket list item, those who can't resist the temptation to impress others on social media with their (over)training, and those who understandably register for too many races when there are a growing number of options out there and then find themselves burned out from too many events. I have flirted with all of that and fortunately came out the other side but not all do or will. Not sure what we can do about this except reinforce the importance of healthy training practices, recovery (not easy!) and balance across all aspects of life--including diet.

That is all.